Magazine article Editor & Publisher

When the 'Surge' Might Have Been Stopped -- Editorial Pages Punted

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

When the 'Surge' Might Have Been Stopped -- Editorial Pages Punted

Article excerpt

For the past five weeks, since President Bush announced his surge (or escalation, if you will) plan for Iraq, most of the nation's newspapers have regularly covered the debate it sparked. Many have, since that time, editorialized against the idea.

Too late. The surge/escalation is now well underway in Iraq and the U.S. Senate just voted on Saturday not to vote on a tame resolution expressing opposition. But where were the concerned editorial writers in late December and early January when they might have made a difference?

Nowhere. Following a general pattern since the start of the war, they punted.

At this sad stage, it is worth recalling that as this critical turning point in America's role in the nearly four-year-old Iraq war neared, and with fair warning of what was coming, the editorial pages of the largest U.S. newspapers were surprisingly, even, appallingly, silent -- pro or con -- on President Bush's decision to send thousands of more troops to Baghdad.

It followed a long pattern, however, of the editorial pages strongly criticizing the conduct of the war without advocating a major change in direction. This happened, even though the president signaled his intention and Democrats in Congress, overcoming their own timidity on the issue, had finally emerged with opposition to the buildup -- setting up a possible battle royal.

But newspapers, at least in their editorials, chose to retreat to the sidelines, as E&P noted at the time. This came even as hawkish conservatives such as Oliver North and Charles Krauthammer, and dozens of other op-ed contributors, came out against the idea, and polls showed that 30% or less of the public backed the idea. That would seem to set the stage for editorials taking a strong stand, for or against.

An E&P survey of major papers' editorial pages in the first week of January, however, just before the president's official announcement, found that very few said much of anything about the well-publicized "surge" idea. A few that did declare themselves came around much too late to make any difference.

The liberal editorial page of The New York Times said nothing until the very last minute, beyond noting the "bleak realities" in Iraq.

On the day of the Bush announcement, it broke that silence, with an editorial that expressed skepticism about any escalation and whether the president would justify it adequately -- but stopping short of opposing the idea. The Times, in fact, has called for last-shot troop increases before.

Following the speech, a Times editorial declared that Bush had not met or set necessary conditions and therefore the paper did not back the troop escalation. By then, as I've said, it was way too late.

Other papers often critical of the war, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, USA Today, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- among others -- were silent before the speech. Oddly, all of them had hailed the recent Iraq Study Group report, which opposed an escalation.

The Washington Post, hawkish in the past, belatedly roused itself to offer a mixed message on the Sunday before the Bush speech. The editorial praised Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman for "courageously" pressing the "surge" -- but added the idea still gave the editors "pause."

On the same day, it carried a major op-ed by McCain, titled, "The Case for More Troops."

One longtime war supporter, the Chicago Tribune, did run an editorial raising doubts about a surge, but did not come out flatly against it, focusing on handing over more responsibility to the Iraqis in general: "President Bush will need firm answers to overcome some intense public opposition. …

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